75 pages 2 hours read



Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1759

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Summary and Study Guide


Candide, or Optimism was first published in 1759 by the French writer Voltaire (born Francois-Marie Arouet in 1694, died in 1778). The most famous and widely read work published by Voltaire, Candide is a satire that critiques contemporary philosophy, and specifically Leibnizian optimism, which posited the doctrine of the best of all possible worlds. Along with other French contemporaries, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, and Montesquieu, Voltaire published at the height of the French Enlightenment, which focused on questions of reason, the scientific method, the body’s physical senses, and sources of knowledge, as well as ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, secularism, and brotherhood. Candide is in constant dialogue with 17th- and 18th-century philosophy and scientific trends on the European continent.

Voltaire was a prolific author, using polemic prose to rhetorically engage with contemporary philosophy and social critique. Candide is regarded as his magnum opus and typically considered part of the Western canon. Candide’s plot is fast moving and picaresque, plays with cliches, and is told by a narrator who does not exaggerate but presents events in a straightforward manner. The text features a series of nested stories, wherein the main storyline pauses while various characters recount their own stories. Candide and his traveling companions also engage in frequent philosophical dialogues, debating a range of Enlightenment-era topics. The success of Voltaire’s satire relies on a dry combination of both witty humor and heartbreaking tragedy to deliver his critique of the human condition. The edition used in this summary is Candide: or, Optimism (2005), translated by Theo Cuffe.

Plot Summary

Candide opens at the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia, Germany, where the young Candide is in love with the Baron’s daughter Cunégonde and is taught by their tutor Pangloss that the world is the best of all possible worlds. Candide is expelled from the castle when he is caught kissing Cunégonde. He is forcibly recruited into the Bulgar army, and after surviving a bloody battle, he escapes to Holland where he is taken in by James the Anabaptist. Candide encounters Pangloss, now a syphilitic beggar on the streets, and learns that Cunégonde died in an attack on the castle. Candide convinces the Anabaptist to fund Pangloss’ medical treatment. All three leave together by boat on a business trip to Portugal, but upon arriving in the bay of Lisbon, a storm causes a shipwreck, and the Anabaptist drowns. Pangloss and Candide make it ashore, but the city is struck by a devastating earthquake, which kills around 30,000 inhabitants. Pangloss justifies the tragedy with optimism, believing everything is as it should be. While recovering from this disaster, a member of the Spanish Inquisition overhears Pangloss and arrests him for heresy. Pangloss is hung to death in an auto-da-fé, while Candide is publicly flogged.

An old woman takes Candide to a country home where he is reunited with Cunégonde, who tells her story. Candide is once again convinced all is for the best. Cunégonde describes how she survived the attack on the castle, was raped by a soldier but saved by a captain, and is currently being shared by a Jewish merchant and the Spanish Inquisitor who flogged Candide. Both the Inquisitor and the merchant arrive, and Candide kills them both. The two lovers escape with the help of the old woman and flee to Cadiz, where they embark for South America. The old woman shares her story: She was the daughter of a princess and a pope but was kidnapped by pirates and passed through many men’s hands until she could escape. Now she serves Cunégonde as a lady’s maid, and she insists that at some point, everyone has considered themselves the unluckiest person alive. On arriving in Buenos Aires, they discover the Inquisition has followed them, so they split up: Cunégonde stays with the old woman under the protection of the Governor of Buenos Aires, while Candide and his valet Cacambo flee to a Jesuit commune.

As a plot twist, Candide finds Cunégonde’s brother, the Baron, among the Jesuits, but the reunion is brief; Candide kills the Baron when he refuses to grant his sister to Candide in marriage. Cacambo and Candide flee into the wilderness and are captured by the Oreillon tribe when they accidentally kill two apes, who were lovers of two girls in the tribe. Cacambo convinces the tribe to set them free, and they get lost in the wilderness again. The two travelers end up in the kingdom of Eldorado, a utopian society isolated from the world, where they stay for a month before deciding to return to their own society with a large flock of red sheep carrying sacks of gold and jewels, a gift from the king.

On the road to Surinam, they encounter an enslaved man who relates his cruel experience in the sugar plantations of South America. Candide loses many of his sheep on the road, and he is swindled of much of his wealth in Surinam. Cacambo and Candide separate, agreeing to meet in Venice where Cacambo will bring Cunégonde once he has purchased her from the Governor. Martin joins Candide in his travels, and they leave for Bordeaux. On the way, Candide recovers one of the sheep that was stolen from him. In France, Candide is cheated out of his newly recovered wealth by multiple locals, including the abbé of Périgord. The abbé takes him to a play and introduces him to Parisian salons, where Candide loses money gambling and is seduced by the marchioness of Parolignac. Before leaving France, the abbé poses as Cunégonde, sending Candide a letter and having him arrested. Once freed, Candide and Martin stop in England, but witnessing the execution of an Admiral, they quickly leave for Venice.

In Venice, Cacambo and Cunégonde are nowhere to be found, and Martin, a pessimist, is skeptical that they will ever be reunited. Candide is reunited with Paquette, however; Pangloss’ former lover has been living as a prostitute since she was expelled from the castle for a sexual liaison. She is accompanied by Brother Girofleo, a young man who has been forced to be a Theatine monk by his family but despises it. Candide and Martin visit the wealthy Senator Pococurante in the hopes of finding someone who is happy with his life, however the Senator is bored and disgusted by all his possessions. At a dinner with six deposed rulers who have come to Venice for Carnevale, to whom Candide offers alms, he is approached by Cacambo, who is now a Sultan’s slave but promises to take them to Cunégonde.

Candide buys Cacambo’s freedom and they sail for Constantinople, where, in another plot twist, they are reunited with Pangloss and the Baron, who are both serving prison sentences and are rowers on the ship. Each man tells their story of surviving death, and Candide buys their freedom. In the climax of the story, which is more of an anti-climax, Candide is reunited with his love, Cunégonde, who has become ugly and shrewish. However, he agrees to marry her, and the Baron is sent away for objecting to the marriage. Candide, Cunégonde, Pangloss, Martin, the old woman, and eventually, Paquette and Brother Girofleo, all settle on a farm in Turkey where they are miserable over all they have lost. Even Pangloss admits he has rejected optimism. After consulting with a dervish, they meet a farmer who lives a happy life with his family. Candide is inspired and decides to cultivate his garden. In the plot’s resolution, each character finds a meaningful way to contribute to their small, isolated farm, and Candide ignores Pangloss’ insistence that all has turned out for the best, saying instead they must cultivate their garden.